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October 8, 2005

Three Times, 2005

threetimes.gifAfter two films that admittedly left me uncertain over the direction of Hou Hsiao Hsien's cinema, it was particularly satisfying to see Hou incorporate his earlier (and specifically, more overtly political) films with his recent expositions into more distilled and highly elliptical mood pieces. Evoking Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit in its essential distillation of singular, transformative episodes that define the formative substance of all romantic relationships, Three Times presents a series of vignettes, each chronicling a series of understated encounters between two lovers played by same actors Chang Chen and Shu Qi, as their destinies weave through the complex socio-political terrain throughout the last century of Taiwanese history. Set in a 1966 rural province, the first chapter A Time of Love recalls the nostalgic innocence of young love of Hou's earlier film Dust in the Wind as a young man spends the few remaining days of his civilian life at a billiard parlor before reporting for compulsory military service and falls for the parlor's attractive, new employee. Infused with a tonal romanticism of unarticulated longing that rivals the atmospheric texturality of a Wong kar-wai retro period piece, Hou's melodic rendition is imbued with a poetry of sensually charged gestures and understated intimacy.

The second chapter A Time for Freedom unfolds as a silent film variation of Flowers of Shanghai. Set at a brothel in 1911 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, the film follows the evolving relationship between a highly influential newspaper editor (and political activist) and a courtesan approaching the age of marriage who is prompted to re-evaluate her own future when her patron decides to intervene in the fate of one of the junior courtesans. Retaining the atmosphere of insularity that pervades Hou's earlier film, the episode similarly reflects Taiwan's increasing estrangement from mainland China at the turn of the century while presenting a social critique on the consuming national and sexual politics of the times.

The third chapter, a contemporary piece set in Taipei entitled A Time for Youth recreates the modern-day rootlessness of Goodbye South Goodbye (sans implicit humor) and Millennium Mambo as a young couple lead an aimless existence of club hopping, wordless intimacy, and escapist motorcycle rides through town. Replacing the stylized, melancholic romanticism of the earlier chapters with a dedramatized, alienated realism, Hou illustrates a sense of estrangement borne, not of external circumstances, but of a pervasive spiritual inertia. Expounding on similar themes of absent parents, broken communication, and missed connection that Hou explores in his previous film, Café Lumière, the film becomes an elegy, not for the nostalgia of a bygone era, but of lost opportunity in an age of liberation.

Posted by acquarello on Oct 08, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, New York Film Festival


I know you (unlike myself) were disatisfied with Hou's last two films, so I was wondering what it was about the "Time for Youth" segment--which reminded me so much of a distilled and perfected Millenium Mambo--that resonated with you when that, previous, film did not.

Also, I was wondering if you were ambivilant to the center story as I was. Though I found the meditation of the couple's relationship through the rules and strictures of the socio-political society of the time quite effectively implied through the use of intertitles instead of dialog, the way the titles truncated many of Hou's long takes and the lack of supple time to submerge oneself in the era (as in Flowers of Shanghai) for me left that episode cold, abbreviated, and almost hollow.

Posted by: phyrephox on Oct 08, 2005 3:52 PM | Permalink

Regarding "Time for Youth", I think the duration is a big part of it. I felt as though Millennium Mambo belabored this sense of aimlessness and inertia way too much, while the compression into the 30-40 minutes of the segment was just right. Another was the motorcycle rides which, like in Goodbye South Goodbye provided a kind of interstitial "escapism" to the interior scenes. I'd say the third is that cumulative quality of the segments that assigns sympathy to Chang's character because of the previous segments, even though they're independent. The characters may be tabula rasa at the end of each segment, but the audience's memory isn't.

Actually, the second segment is what made me think that Hou may have been thinking of something more along the lines of Akerman's film in terms of a serialization of stages of romantic relationships (encounter, crossroads, end), rather than variations on the same theme. In that sense, the second segment should feel a bit truncated because it concludes at a point of decision that will forever change their relationship. As an extension, I see the "end" of the third, not as the end of the relationship between Chang Chen and Shu Qi, but a more figurative death of the relationship between her and her roommate.

Posted by: acquarello on Oct 08, 2005 7:44 PM | Permalink

Finally got to see this -- on the baregones Taiwanese DVD. One viewing is not enough for me to evaluate this. For now, I can only say: (1) that I like it, and (2) that parts 1 and 3 are only marginally les non-talkie than part 2 (whose intertitles actually provides more expository narration than one finds in the other parts).

Posted by: Michael Kerpan on Feb 07, 2006 10:14 AM | Permalink

"baregones" = "barebones"


Posted by: Michael Kerpan on Feb 07, 2006 10:31 AM | Permalink

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